Why no one cared until a mall was attacked
On Saturday, September 21, 2013, four masked militants took control of the Westgate Mall, an upscale shopping centre in downtown Nairobi, Kenya. 67 people were killed and 175 were wounded over the four day siege. The story was picked up by media outlets worldwide and plastered on the front page for the next week.
But al-Shabaab had been terrorizing the region since 2003, so why hadn’t Western press covered their slaughtering villages, murdering Somali government officials, or institution of Sharia law across the horn of Africa until the Westgate attack?
Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, has long been held as a beacon of stability in East Africa and serves as the hub for numerous NGO’s and corporations that operate in the region. The Westgate Mall, with stores recognizable to even American shoppers, represented the height of Kenyan development; luxury brands that showed how far Kenya surpassed it failed state neighbors and become a model of development. The assault on Westgate was not just an assault on a shopping center. It was an assault to a temple of capitalism. An affront to the progress spurred on with the help of the First World since Kenya’s independence. It was a smudge on the face of a success story.
Now look back to the 2000’s and the widespread media and NGO attention the crisis in Darfur got from American citizens. War had been raging in Sudan between and within rebel groups and along ethnic lines since independence from the United Kingdom in 1956. No one gave two shits about the conflict until American church congregations picked up on the story and turned it into something of a religious conflict between Christians and Muslims, at which point the US had no choice but to interfere. George Bush, never one to disappoint his primary voting bloc, even brokered the peace deal, ending the US labeled genocide which had been raging for 3 years before anyone even thought about getting involved. But once the papers were signed, Bush came away with another badge on his foreign policy legacy and everyone went home happy. Happy to ignore the severe developmental issues and government inefficiencies that still plague the country today. The mission that the churches set out had been accomplished and that was that.
These stories only make the front page only when Western ideals are in danger. The phenomenon is found throughout history. Only when Western interests are threatened do we react. No matter how tragic the atrocities committed in an area, the world at large does not care until First World deems it worthy.
Take the case of the girls in Nigeria kidnapped by Boko Haram in mid April, which also made front page news across the world. Boko Haram has been doing much of the same as al-Shabaab, but in Nigeria. Their goal, initiated in 2002, is the institution of Islamic fundamentalism in northern Nigeria, as well as the destabilization of the Nigerian government, run down with corruption, and a weak police force. Very rarely had their exploits made it out of the one inch “International Events” section in the back pages. But then they took 276 school girls and overnight, Boko Haram became a household name. Hashtags, celebrity endorsements, and TV specials followed soon after.
The inefficiencies of Goodluck Jonathon’s administration were never called into question by Western media. No one asked why vigilante forces of men protecting their fearful villages with nothing more than machetes had replaced the Nigerian police force. No one asked where billions of dollars of Nigeria’s government revenue had disappeared. No one asked why these attacks began, and no one heard the calls of Boko Haram. Those that did were cast aside as pariahs. They were against the goals of the government. They were hinderances in the search for these girls. They were against the state and enemies themselves.
But most worrisome, no one in the First World asked about the hundreds of women that were kidnapped in the days, weeks, and months after the #bringbackourgirls campaign. No one asked about the car bombs tearing through Nigeria’s cities. No one demanded answers about the numerous villages that were razed or the countless murders since.
The world stopped caring. The hashtags disappeared, the reports faded slowly page by page until they were back in their one inch columns. Just as quickly as the girls gained attention, they were forgotten.
There was no direct single connection with this story that made it important to First World audiences. But Malala had just come off her book tour and the injustices against young women worldwide were still fresh in the minds of middle-aged American housewives. Malala made it fashionable to care and Boko Haram’s kidnapping gave the media an opportunity to capitalize on these newfound sympathies. But despite the short-lived tendencies of such stories and media fads, the printed word lives on for generations and has consequences for political culture and historical perspective.
We face a world wrought with injustice and a world conquered by a very solid political stance of Western ideals, a breach of which represents the mark of an enemy to the state. Everything that is presented before us, all the information we have it hand, is served to us by the media and the government over it. We must ask ourselves constantly about how much we can trust the information before us and, more importantly, what isn’t being shown to us. This is the basis behind organizations like Wikileaks and the actions of men like Edward Snowden and Daniel Ellsberg, though some may execute their visions better than others. We see the World Cup on television, but do we see the widespread protests outside the stadium demanding better working and living conditions? We see the rising cost of education in America, but do we see the university students in Ethiopia being slaughtered for protesting against the government?
It is our duty to demand answers from the hegemonic press and government above us. History and the media in front of us are not nearly as conspiratorial as it may seem but it is the slow acculturation of society that creates a self-sustaining and self-serving system that presents only the information that is deemed necessary to strengthen the Western cause. Even stories that directly attack it, such as the NSA leak or Watergate, fade quickly out of our collective conscious. Without demanding answers and the side of the story that is not presented to us by mainstream media, there can not be change. If we only see the same side of the argument from every event around the world, we will never see ourselves as perpetrators and we will always see the “others” as enemies, or worse, unimportant. Until this dichotomy is destroyed, change can not occur.